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Port: Term limits campaign asked to file amended campaign disclosure

Secretary of State Michael Howe is asking the group to make an amended filing within 10 days.

PHOTO: Jared Hendrix
Bastiat Caucus organizer Jared Hendrix, who was paid to manage the term limits ballot measure campaign in 2022, speaks during a rally at the North Dakota Capitol on April 5, 2021.
Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

MINOT, N.D. β€” I have an update in what has been, so far, the pettiest and most hypocritical political imbroglio in North Dakota politics so far this year.

To catch you up: Earlier this week a representative from U.S. Term Limits sent out a news release announcing that he had filed an ethics complaint against state Rep. Jim Kasper over a $5,000 campaign contribution from the 2020 election cycle from the founder of U.S. Term Limits. The group claims the contribution wasn't disclosed by Kasper in accordance with state transparency laws.

PHOTO: Term Limits ballot measure petition circulator
In this reader-submitted photo, a circulator for a proposed constitutional amendment that would implement term limits in North Dakota uses signs falsely claiming the petition is about term limits for Congress.
(Courtesy photo)

The group had already slammed Kasper for going back on a pledge he signed to their group. Kasper, for his part, is currently backing some proposed reforms to the term limits amendment U.S. Term limits paid to put on the ballot last year, and told me he'd have to review his campaign records to see if he needs to make an amended filing.

That outcome seems likely because the term limits folks provided, in their press release, a canceled check that was sent to Kasper. That the group apparently didn't bother to make an issue out of the allegedly undisclosed, years-old contribution until they needed leverage on Kasper is, perhaps, telling.

But, as I reported yesterday, it turns out the ballot measure campaign created by a paid activist hired by U.S. Term limits had some problems with its own campaign finance disclosures. I noticed a $28,000 discrepancy in the group's year-end report and brought it to the attention of Secretary of State Michael Howe.

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Now Howe has sent the term limits campaign a letter outlining the problem and asking that an amended report be filed with their office.

"As required by state law, (N.D.C.C Β§ 16.1-01.1-06. 1(a)), we are requesting written clarification and an amendment to your current reporting to account for this discrepancy. You have 10 days or until April 4, 2023, to amend your reporting or the late fees as specified below will be assessed according to the fee schedule summarized at the bottom of this letter," Howe wrote to Minot-based activist Jared Hendrix, the campaign manager for the term limits ballot measure.

Per the letter, Howe apparently spoke to Hendrix by phone, with the latter attributing the discrepancy to a $39,400 in-kind donation to the campaign from U.S. Term Limits $20,000 of which was, in truth, a cash contribution. However, Howe notes that the numbers still don't add up, entirely, even given that explanation.

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It's a relatively minor matter, and I'm certain it will be cleared up, though this slap-fight between Kasper and the term limits folks does expose some disconcerting realities for North Dakotans.

The first is that an out-of-state group is trying to use our relatively new ethics commission as a political weapon. This is precisely the sort of thing people who opposed the ballot measure creating that commission β€” including this humble correspondent β€” were concerned about. Some have told me that Scott Tillman, the U.S. Term Limits employee who filed the complaint, is prohibited by law from doing so because section 54-66-01 of the North Dakota Century Code defines a complainant in that process as "a North Dakota resident who, in writing or verbally, submits a complaint to the commission."

Mr. Tillman, per the address provided in his complaint, lives in Michigan. Still, the statute, while defining complainants as North Dakota residents, doesn't include a specific prohibition on complaints from out-of-state residents. And it would be easy enough for someone like Tillman to find an in-state ally to file a complaint.

The real problem is that ethics complaints can be used as a political cudgel. The ethics commission isn't allowed to talk about complaints they're investigating, but those filing the complaints have no such prohibition, meaning anyone could file a complaint, no matter how spurious, and create a cloud over the head of an elected official.

What a mess.

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The second problem this reveals, as I noted yesterday, is that there are few consequences for flouting our state's campaign transparency laws. The laws are too loose as it is β€” there aren't enough reports, or enough details, required of candidates or campaigns β€” and those who ignore them will suffer, at most, a $100 fine and perhaps a scolding from someone in the news media like me.

That's not enough.

We can do better.

We should do better.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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